The Free State of Jones is perhaps Mississippi’s most enduring Civil War legend. Long a staple of folklore, fiction, and history, this anti-Confederate uprising has inspired five full-length books and countless articles and essays. Fascination with the legend endures not only because white men and women of a Deep South state fought against the Confederacy but also because of interracial collaboration between Newt Knight, captain of the Knight Company, a band of deserters, and Rachel, a slave. Their alliance led to the growth of a mixed-race community that survives today.
More than simply a local Civil War tale, the Free State of Jones is important for what it reveals about class, race, and gender relations in the Old South. Few large slaveholders lived in Mississippi’s Piney Woods, and most families that opposed the Confederacy came from the nonslaveholding yeomanry. Women and children from closely related families protected their male relatives from Confederate authorities, while resourceful slaves provided deserters with food and supplies pilfered from their masters.
The true facts and significance of the Jones County uprising have long been disputed. There is no hard evidence, for example, to support the Natchez Courier’s 1864 claim that the county had formally seceded from the Confederacy and formed its own republic, although the Jones County region certainly was a hotbed of internal dissent. The majority of Jones County voters initially opposed the state’s secession from the Union, and by 1863 widespread desertions from the Confederate Army contributed to an already explosive social and political climate, producing violent clashes between community factions and between deserters and Confederate militia.
The Knight Company maintained its camp on the Leaf River at the intersection of Jones, Covington, and Jasper Counties. At the height of the company’s power, it included between one hundred and three hundred men. In early 1864 reports that Jones County deserters had killed or threatened Confederate officials convinced Confederate leaders to send two expeditions into the region to quell unrest. Col. Henry Maury led the first expedition on 2 March 1864, and Col. Robert Lowry (future governor of Mississippi) headed the second on 14 April. During a weeklong raid, Lowry’s men executed eleven suspected deserters but failed to capture Knight and some twenty members of his band. During Reconstruction, Republicans rewarded several members or supporters of the band with local political appointments, but their influence was eroded by the return to power of pro-Confederate Democrats.
By 1900 the image of the Free State of Jones had been reshaped by the myth of the Lost Cause, which insisted that the Confederacy had been formed to protect liberty and independence by defending states against a too-powerful federal government and that the issue of slavery was peripheral to antebellum sectional tensions. Conceptions of a Solid South, accompanied by campaigns of white supremacy and implementation of racial segregation, left little room for white southerners who armed themselves against the Confederacy and allied with slaves. Knight’s forces increasingly became dismissed as a gang of poor white outlaws and bandits.
Lost Cause versions of the Free State of Jones have been revised in the wake of historians’ current emphasis on studying the Civil War’s home front as well as its battlefields. Like various other unionist strongholds throughout the South, Jones County’s inner war indicated deep political fissures within the white South that blurred gender and racial boundaries and threatened the slaveholding patriarchy from within.
A 2016 Hollywood film, The Free State of Jones, revived and expanded interest in the story.
- Victoria E. Bynum, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (2001)
- G. Norton Galloway, Magazine of American History 8 (1886)
- Richard Grant, “The True Story of the ‘The Free State of Jones,’” Smithsonian (March 2016)
- Ethel Knight, The Echo of the Black Horn: An Authentic Tale of “the Governor” of “the Free State of Jones” (1951)
- Thomas J. Knight, The Life and Activities of Captain Newton Knight and His Company and the “Free State of Jones” (1935)
- Rudy Leverett, Legend of the Free State of Jones (1984)
- Goode Montgomery, “Alleged Secession of Jones County,” Publications of the Mississippi Historical Society (1904)
- James Street, Tap Roots (1943)